Friday, October 14, 2016

The Hennaed Dove: Henna in Palestinian Culture

Why does the dove always have henna on her feet? Because when Noah sent forth a raven and a dove from the Ark, the raven never came back. Therefore this curse was put upon him: “May your face be black as night”… But the dove returned, and therefore Noah blessed her with every blessing, saying, “May you every month have a pair of young ones” and “May your face forever shine white.” And since that time the dove is born with henna on her feet. — Palestinian folktale, recorded by Crowfoot and Baldensperger (1932)
Palestinian henna has been in the news recently… First, it was Gigi Hadid, who had a henna party last winter and posted a picture on Instagram with the caption that she was “half-Palestinian and proud of it.” Then there was this viral video about an artist in Gaza who uses henna to create landscape paintings. And last month, a friend linked me to this article on Al-Monitor about another henna artist working in Gaza. While the article itself is interesting enough, it quotes self-appointed “expert historian” Naser al-Yafawi with some questionable ‘facts’ about the history of henna… So I thought I’d devote a blogpost to documenting actual sources for the history of henna in Palestinian culture.

Of course, political struggles and intense ideological disagreements make it difficult to discuss any topic related to Palestinian culture, even down to what to call the area under discussion. I’m going to try my best to take a balanced and objective stance in this post, but I apologize if I’ve offended any of my readers, and I invite you to share your thoughts in the comments.

The area we’re dealing with, the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, north of Egypt and south of Lebanon, today comprises the political entities of Syria, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. In the ancient world, this area was home to a variety of Semitic tribes, known as Canaanites, as well as the Israelites (whom most scholars consider to be Canaanites themselves), the ancestors of the Jewish people. 

Henna is mentioned in a small number of Canaanite and Israelite texts, indicating that it was known and used in the region: in the myth cycle of Ba‘al and ‘Anath, a Canaanite text discovered at Ugarit (today in northwest Syria), the goddess ‘Anath is described as using henna as she prepares to rescue her brother-husband from the god of Death, Mot. In the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible], in Song of Songs, the henna plant is mentioned as growing at ‘Ein Gedi (an oasis near the Dead Sea), and it seems that its sweet-smelling flowers were valued as a source of perfume. Later Greek and Roman authors confirm that henna was grown in the region, mentioning in particular the henna of Ascalon (today Ashkelon, just north of Gaza), and the Mishnah (codified around 200 CE) specifies that henna is considered an agricultural product of the Land of Israel.

The henna plant in From Cedar to Hyssop:
A Study in the Folklore of Plants in Palestine

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The First Indian Mehndi Design... Part Two.

One year ago, I wrote a blog post exploring an Indian Mughal painting from Rajasthan, ca. 1740, showing a woman with a simple dot design on her palm. In that post I suggested that this was “the oldest visual depiction of henna designs in Indian art”... yet. Of course, the wonderful thing about academic research is that as your knowledge grows, you can return and revise your earlier theories. I now believe that the painting I featured there is not in fact the oldest visual depiction of a henna design in Indian art, and that we can now push the date back yet another century. I am aware of how dreadfully remiss I've been in posting henna blogs, so I've written up a short post featuring this object and hopefully it will be followed by a few others that have been queued for months... 

Scribal tools and pen cases, 18th century Turkey, in the
Aga Khan Museum.
The object in question is not a painting, but a decorated pen-case, known in Persian as a qalamdan. The qalamdan was sometimes made of metal and sometimes out of wood or papier mâché, and decorated with inlay, gold, watercolour, or lacquer. 

They were a popular object among the educated and cultured classes of Persian and Indian society, representing the owner’s appreciation of literature and the arts and suggesting (correctly or not) that the owner was a writer, poet, or artist themselves.

This particular qalamdan, currently in the Freer Gallery of Art (F1959.5) in Washington D.C., is made of papier mâché with watercolour paintings that have been glued on top. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Lalle, Anella, and Fudden: Henna in West Africa

I’ve already blogged about henna in East Africa here, and of course I’ve done several posts about henna in North Africa (e.g. here, here, and here), so I figured it was time for West African henna traditions to get their time to shine.

Woman applying henna for Eid, Burkina Faso, 2012.
Photo by Bridget Roby.
Henna has been a part of West African culture for at least a thousand years. While it is likely that henna has been growing in North Africa as early as the Roman period, the oldest record that we have of henna in the region of West Africa is from the medieval Andalusi geographer al-Bakri (ca. 1014-1094), who writes in his book Kitāb al-Masālik wa-al-Mamālik (“The Book of Roads and Kingdoms”):
Awdaghust [is] a flourishing place, a large town containing markets, numerous palms and henna trees… Excellent cucumbers grow there, and there are a few small fig trees and some vines, as well as plantations of henna which produce a large crop. 
Today Awdaghust (or Aoudaghost) is an archaeological site located in south-central Mauritania, but in the Middle Ages it was an important oasis town for trans-Saharan caravans of gold and salt, under the control of the Ghana Empire (not to be confused with the modern country of Ghana). In fact, henna may have been growing there even earlier, since scholars have suggested that al-Bakri is likely borrowing this information from the 10th-century writer al-Warraq (McDougall 1985, pg. 7).

Medieval trans-Saharan trade routes (map by Sam Nixon).

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Caught on Film: An Egyptian Henna Party, 1937

At a recent academic conference, I heard a paper presented by Professor Deborah Starr, from Cornell University, about the films of Egyptian-Jewish filmmaker Togo Mizrahi. While the talk was interesting already, she captured my attention when she mentioned that one of Mizrahi’s films showed a henna party before one of the character’s weddings. I asked her afterwards if she could direct me to the clip, and she was more than happy to assist. I was super excited to catch a glimpse of what a henna party looked like in 1930s Egypt, even if only for less than a minute.

An 'attar shop in Cairo, selling spices, medicine,
and perfumes, from Lane (1836). The frontmost
box reads "hinna" [henna].
First (as usual), some historical background. Even though we might not immediately think of Egypt when we think about henna, Egypt was actually a centre for henna production in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (as I previously explored in this blogpost). In 1903, George Bonaparte, a teacher at the Agricultural College of Cairo, wrote that henna was grown mainly in the provinces of Sharqia and Qalyubia, and that annual exports of henna had increased from 1100 tons in 1899 to 1500 tons in 1901. 

Henna was incredibly cheap — Bonaparte records that the average price of henna powder in 1903 was 80 piastres per kantar [approximately 99 lbs]. From what I’ve been able to see online, 80 piastres in 1903 was about 4 US dollars, so clearly henna was readily available at every budget.

There are some descriptions of Egyptian henna practices in Edward William Lane’s massive work Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836), where he records that some women stained just the nails or fingertips, while others added simple designs of stripes or dots. He describes the wedding henna ceremony, leilat al-hinna, among Muslims as follows (pg. 208):